June 10, 2013 Leave a comment
Humans evolved. We have been aware of this reality for 150 years, yet the implications are not apparent to most. What we have discovered about evolution is that it is A) not goal oriented and B) not hierarchical (i.e., there is no end state). This means that humans, as we currently exist, will not always exist.
Let me be clear before proceeding. This does not mean extinction is inevitable. But it does mean that our current form cannot persist indefinitely. We will change.
As a result of this knowledge, geneticist Dr. Alan Kwan and graphic designer Nickolay Lamm attempted to understand what we might look like in 20,000-100,000 years. Unfortunately for both individuals involved, their work is not science and should only be considered misleading science fiction.
Most biologists have a fantastic understanding of evolution (obviously). Biologists have revealed how the entire biosphere evolved. The theory of evolution by natural selection can explain in fantastic detail how a colony of the first replicating cells could diversify over time to produce endless forms most beautiful, including highly intelligent species like our own.
Despite the theory of evolution’s beautiful simplicity, clearly many people do not understand how it works at all. Evolution is a theory that can explain the history of organisms. Evolution can explain how things change. However, the theory is very rarely useful in predicting specific changes. From our knowledge of the history of biosphere, we can say some things about how a biosphere evolves, and therefore predict a few things about what we should suspect of the biosphere millions of years in the future. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins expounded on this quite well recently:
Evolution is very seldom in the business of predicting what is going to happen in a million years time. What I would say is that if you asked me what life is going to look like in say, ten million years or twenty million years, […] what there will be is a whole lot of different species doing pretty much the same thing as the present species are, but they’ll all be different. […] What you can predict is that there will be a similar range of species, doing a similar range of things, and that’s a fascinating thought.
Of course I agree with Dawkins main point, which is that we now understand how a biosphere is likely to change, even if we can’t say anything specifically about any one organism. We understand how a biosphere changes given the existence of certain traits like vision, hearing, echolocation, etc.
However, where I would perhaps disagree with Dawkins is that his analysis does not account for intelligence. Intelligence is here now. The Earth has a nervous system. Presently, that is our species: Homo sapiens. Intelligence is a game changer for evolution and it is a game changer for the biosphere. In the history of life on Earth, no intelligent species has ever created technology that itself evolves. As a result, we have no idea what the biosphere will look like over millions of years, given the presence of high intelligence. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.
This is fundamentally why the research done by Alan Kwan and Nickolay Lamm is wrong. But they are wrong for two other important reasons as well:
1) Conventional evolutionary mechanisms for change do not effect our species. For example, all species are subject to the law of natural selection. In all species that have ever existed most individuals did not survive long enough to reproduce. Differential non-random survival produced change over long spans of time. However humans are lifting themselves from natural selection because most people live long enough to reproduce. The mechanisms for change that will take natural selections place will be self-imposed through genetic engineering. This means that we will still be changing, but that change will literally be intelligent. Ironically, we will be intelligently designing ourselves. Although it is possible for me to posit this will occur, it is literally impossible for me to say what humans 500 or 1,000 years hence choose to change about their genetic makeup.
2) Technological evolution is speeding up, which is going to make biological evolution near irrelevant. All other species are subject to biological evolutionary processes that take tens of thousands of years (at least) to make considerable genomic changes. However, technological evolution (which is driven by culture) changes on yearly timescales. And that process is only getting faster. In the next 100 years we will likely witness more technological evolution than perhaps all of previous human history combined. How humans in only the next 100 years decide to fundamentally alter their form is debatable and realistically speaking, approaches unknowability. Many theories posit that the human form in 100 years will be primarily cyborg or robotic. It seems probable to me. But not 100% knowable.
Are we starting to see why predicting what we will look like in 100,000 years is ridiculous?
In the end, there is an important lesson to learn from the work of Dr. Kwan and Nickolay Lamm. First, it is important to acknowledge that the human form has not always appeared as it currently does. Second, that form will continue to change, and although we can gauge some type of directionality to that change, it is impossible to say what change will occur on the scales of deep time. Finally, we need to acknowledge that the human species is different than any life that has come before in the history of Earth. As I stated above, biologists have a good understanding of how life has evolved over the past 4 billion years. But we have no idea how life evolves given high intelligence. Therefore, we cannot predict what the biosphere will look like on the scales of deep time if we include the variable of intelligence. And we definitely can’t predict specific anatomical, physical, or genetic changes that may occur within our species.
Understanding human evolution is a science. We must make sure that when we discuss human evolution, both in the past and in contemporary times, that we focus on what is knowable. Attempting to understand what is probable in the next 100 years is in the realm of science. It is a maturing predictive science, but it is still science. In contrast, attempting to understand what will happen in the next 100,000 is impossible. It is science fiction.
What do you think about the future of human evolution? Let Cadell know on Twitter!